3 and 1/2 stars out of 4
Justifiably portrayed in feature films more than all other U.S. presidents combined, Abraham Lincoln will never likely cease providing ripe subject matter to artists, filmmakers and (if they're smart) other politicians. The first of several things that differentiates "Lincoln" from every other previous Lincoln movie is the time period it covers.
Unlike the bulk of the rest, it focuses on just the last four months of his life and contains little in the way of what we've already seen ad infinitum. If you're looking for an extensive bio flick, this isn't it. You'll find more raw data in (the unfairly maligned) "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" from earlier this year. Whether intending to or not, "Lincoln" is also a scarily accurate reflection of the modern political landscape where the president fights tooth and nail with the House of Representatives, who neither respect him or embrace his ideals.
Having just been elected to his second term and reasonably sure the Union will win the Civil War, the only thing Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) spends his time on is getting his (largely symbolic) Emancipation Proclamation passed into law as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Rather than presenting Lincoln as the noble statesman, iconic do-gooder and slain father figure, Day-Lewis, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner show us the man behind the legendary facade. As astutely pointed out by late historian Shelby Foote in Ken Burns' "The Civil War," everything Lincoln did was calculated for effect and in addition to being the country's greatest leader ever, he was also its finest politician. No one traded horses or pushed buttons better than Lincoln.
As great as Lincoln was at wrangling votes and charming his enemies, little of that success spilled over into his private life. Understandably shaken and hardened after the deaths of two of his toddler sons, Lincoln's demeanor with eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was strained at best and his marriage to the emotionally fragile socialite Mary Todd (Sally Field) tumultuous, mercurial and frosty. Only his kind and gentle treatment of fourth son Tad resembled normalcy.
The filmmakers take a huge chance by filing a 149 minute movie with thickets of expansive dialogue and very little in the way of action. Its opening scene (the least effective in the entire film) is a depiction of a skirmish between black Union and white Confederate soldiers that would have been much more at home in "Glory." From this point on, "Lincoln" is a talky (but far from dry or preachy) political drama about a landmark piece of American legislation most of us already knew of but are barely aware of its complicated gestation and narrow passage.
Considering their equally rock-solid performances and strong physical resemblance to their characters, it might surprise most that Day-Lewis and Field were not Spielberg's first choices for Abraham and Mary. Stepping in for Liam Neeson, who backed out after stating he was now too old for the part, Day-Lewis delivers what is arguably the finest performance of his already impressive career. From the odd gait to the hunched posture to the thin and reedy high-pitched manner of speech, Day-Lewis covers all the bases and then some. Come February he will be the heavy favorite to win his third Oscar.
If the Academy did what they should have done years ago and created a new category for Best Ensemble Acting, the collective "Lincoln" cast would also be the front-runner. David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, James Spader and Jackie Earle Haley are among the dozen or so supporting players who nail every line, glance and nuance. There's not a weak link to be found.
It goes without saying that "Lincoln" will be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in history, but there are many others who should make it a point to go -- even if they don't know it yet. The parent of any child that is able to operate a joy stick but not quite old enough to drive a car needs to take the initiative of expanding their minds by showing them what happened 150 years ago that changed their country -- and by extension -- the world forever. (DreamWorks/Fox)